by ELLIOT CARTER
What happens when you combine Nazi propaganda, brutalist architecture and practical national security problems? You get chunky, concrete buildings that last for decades as symbols of war.
Flak towers were one of the Third Reich’s answers to Allied air attacks during World War II. These absolutely massive towers sheltered anti-aircraft guns in German cities—and protected their ammunition from falling bombs.
Several of these beasts are still standing today in Germany and Austria. Huge amounts of reinforced concrete in the towers—some have walls 11-feet thick—complicated efforts to demolish them after the war.
The remaining towers pose something of a dilemma.
Destroying them is pretty much impossible owing to their proximity to urban spaces—and the sheer amount of explosives required.
Faced with this problem, the post-war government in Vienna converted one tower into an aquarium. The Austrian army still uses another one.
Another debate in Hamburg erupted in 2013 because of plans by urban design firm Interpol Architecture. The concept envisioned a pyramid garden on the roof of a war-era flak tower in the port city’s St. Pauli district.
The designers want to incorporate cafes, clubs and performance art spaces in and around the structure, which sits astride a modern soccer stadium. But many locals believe the old military fortification should remain untouched—as a symbol of the Nazi regime’s terror.
Before World War II, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering emphasized the offensive strength of his air force—and claimed the Allies would never successfully bomb the Reich’s cities.
The British Royal Air Force quickly debunked that propaganda on Aug. 25, 1940, when it launched its first 70-bomber raid on Berlin. Allied bombing raids would strike the German capital another 363 times before the war ended in 1945.
In response to this vulnerability, Hitler and his staff planned three giant concrete complexes, like 20th-century castles, around Berlin. They planned three more for Vienna, and two for the strategic port of Hamburg.
The German dictator took a personal interest in the towers, and even drew up rough sketches of their facades.
As propaganda, the towers served as an intimidating symbol of the Nazi regime.
The tremendous scale of the flak towers made their construction a national strategic endeavor. Hitler altered the national rail schedule, and commandeered barges from as far away as France and Holland to bring concrete and materials to the construction sites.
“To erect one of those flak towers it was necessary to have 100,000 tons of ballast, 78,000 tons of gravel, 35,000 tons of cement, 9,200 tons of steel, and 15,000 cubic meters of wood,” historian Michael Foedrowitz said to the National Geographic Channel. “The biggest problem for the Germans was the transportation question.”
The Nazis still completed the Berlin towers in just six months.
Flak towers operated in pairs—gun towers known as Gefechsturm and command towers known as Leitturm. Using their large, retractable radar dishes, the command towers could spot incoming bombers 50 miles away.
The gun towers sported a battery of eight 128-millimeter cannons. These were super-sized versions of the more famous 88-millimeter gun. And each tower had scores of smaller auto cannons that protected against low-flying planes.
All together, the eight 128-millimeter guns could fire a terrifying 48 shells into the air every minute.
But supplying ammunition to these batteries was a logistical nightmare. Engineers built mechanical ammo lifts into the rooftops to deliver shells like a battleship turret.
They also added cranes on the roof to help with the onerous task of hoisting up fresh 128-millimeter ammo barrels.
Despite the difficulties, the flak towers proved to be valuable military assets. Berlin’s dense urban center dated to medieval times, and anti-aircraft teams operating on street level had limited lines of sight. Guns firing from atop the seven-story towers could hit targets eight miles away in every direction.
Flak towers also played an important role as bomb shelters for thousands of civilians in Berlin. With 10-foot-thick ceilings, they were practically immune to air attack.
When the Red Army stormed Berlin in 1945, the flak towers became some of the last places of armed resistance. They were simply that difficult to destroy. Anti-aircraft gunners lowered their cannons to fire at tanks on the ground.
Front-line Soviet forces didn’t have anything capable of penetrating the massive walls, and ended up largely bypassing the castles. Berlin’s towers only surrendered later as the defending troops’ supplies ran out.
And most of them are still there today … towering over everybody. The question is—what the Hell are you supposed to do with them? They’re certainly not going anywhere.
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